IHSA considering addition of esports

Robbie Fraser, Executive Sports Editor

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The Robert Morris University “League of Legends” varsity reserve team competes in intersquad matches in the university’s esports arena on Oct. 24. In 2014, the university was the first to begin offering esports scholarships. Photo By Robbie Fraser

Senior Dane Spengel has a talent. A talent that has taken him to tournaments in Anaheim and Las Vegas. A talent that has pitted him against some of the best competition in the world. A talent that has led him to win thousands of dollars. The talent? Video gaming.

Spengel said he was a professional Call of Duty player from 2015 to 2016 until a new rule was made disallowing gamers under 18 from playing rated M games professionally, but his experience in competitive video gaming, or esports, is not unique.

“[Esports] is actually coming up pretty rapidly,” said Spengel. “Esports is a growing industry, … and [companies] are making millions of dollars [because of] it.”

The emergence of esports can be seen across Illinois as over 70 high schools have participated in some form of esports, according to Todd McFarlin, Taft High School esports sponsor.

The IHSA is also considering adding esports as an official activity, said Amy Whitlock, Oswego East esports sponsor.

Whitlock started the Oswego East esports program three years ago and currently has 26 students playing “League of Legends” and four playing “Rocket League” within the program.

“We have a varsity [and] a junior varsity [team], and those two are tryout teams, and the other teams are people who are learning to play, or they’re casual players,” Whitlock said.

Oswego East competes throughout the school year in several different competitions. The team has matches about once a week in the High School Starleague, an organization with eight divisions from across North America each containing 40 to 50 teams. Students usually play from computers in their own homes and communicate with each other via headsets.

Whitlock said Oswego East also competes in the annual High School Esports Invitational hosted by Robert Morris University in its esports arena. The university is currently one of 45 members of the National Association of Collegiate Esports, each of which offers esports scholarships.

According to Kurt Melcher, Robert Morris University esports executive director, the university offers varsity scholarships and varsity reserve scholarships which pay 70 percent and 35 percent of a student’s tuition, respectively.

Melcher said esports are very popular among high school students, but there are currently few associations who have taken the lead in organizing esports.

“It’s inevitable, in my opinion, that it’ll get organized through state associations across the U.S.” said Melcher. “I think college leads the way right now, … and then … it will trickle down to high schools.”

Whitlock said Oswego East, which has a couple of students considering playing in college, also participates in on-site tournaments mainly organized by the Illinois High School eSports Association, also known as the IHSEA, for which Whitlock is in charge of public relations.

“[The IHSEA is] a group of all of the high schools in the [Chicagoland] area who have a team, and then it’s also there for people who’d like to make a team at their school.

“It’s already in place, already organizing tournaments, so we’re ahead of the IHSA, who is just now saying, ‘Hey, is there interest?’” said Whitlock. “We’re like, ‘Yeah, there’s tons of interest. We’ve already got tournaments going.’”

McFarlin, who is also a founder of the IHSEA, said the association was established a year ago and now has information from about 30 schools.

The IHSA requires 80 schools for an official activity to be created, however, according to Whitlock.

“It would be nice to have a sanctioning by [the IHSA], but they move too slowly, and I think that esports is moving much quicker, so that’s why we created the second organization,” Whitlock said.

Whitlock said that at a tournament this summer, her team and McFarlin’s team from Taft High School played exhibition matches for IHSA officials, so the officials could get a feel for how esports competitions operate.

In a phone interview, Kurt Gibson, IHSA associate executive director, said the IHSA is in the early stages of adding esports as most likely an official activity rather than a sport.

“It’s more a question of ‘when’ than ‘if,’” Gibson said.

At a September IHSA board meeting, esports was officially placed on the association’s “emerging sports and activities list,” according to Gibson. From this point in the process, Gibson believes it will take two to three years for esports to be added.

At Glenbrook North, sophomore Zach Malen said he is creating the PC Gaming Club as soon as he finds a sponsor.

Malen is hoping to start the club this winter. Club members will play games such as “League of Legends” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” but he is open to new games as well.

“[The club is] more just so that you can meet people to play games with outside of school because you can’t really play games in school, and we also want to … compete in leagues online if there’s enough interest in doing that,” Malen said.

Spengel said he believes there would be a high interest level for an esports organization at GBN.

“It will bring a lot of different people out to work as a team,” Spengel said.

Melcher said the growth of esports has been rapid.

“Esports has grown really organically and in the shadows for a number of years,” said Melcher. “It’s not until … these last two years that I think mainstream culture is starting to pay attention and starting to bring it … out from the shadows.”

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IHSA considering addition of esports